One of the greatest high school teams of the early years of Kentucky High School basketball was the Inez Indians. In ten amazing seasons, from 1932 to 1941, Coach Russell Williamson and his teams won 298 games, including two seasons with 40 wins each; eight 58th/59th District titles (1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939 and 1940); seven 15th Region championships (1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939, 1940 and 1941), appeared in five “Sweet 16” Final Fours (1935, 1936, 1937, 1940 and 1941) and won one Kentucky High School state championship (1941). This is an amazing accomplishment when you consider the enrollment at Inez during those years never exceeded more than 110 high school students. Possibly the greatest praise the Indians were given after winning the 1941 State Tournament came from Adolph Rupp, head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. Rupp was quoted in the Indianapolis Star saying, “that Inez had done more for the advancement of basketball in Kentucky than any other team.”
Those 1940-41 Indians were led by a strong core of seniors – Alex Harmon, Bob Cooper, Charlie Kirk, Billy Taylor and Lester West.Perhaps the best player of the bunch was Lester West. Standing 5’10 and weighing 160 lbs., West, known for his ball-handling and passing skills, was one of the toughest high school players in the state. Dislocating his shoulder in an early January game at Louisville Male he continued to play the rest of the season despite the injury. He played so well in fact that he was named to the “Sweet 16” All-Tournament team for the second consecutive year after helping lead Inez to that state title. West and the rest of the Inez starting five played so well throughout the season that all five were named to the prestigious Kentucky All-Star team who would take on their counterparts from Indiana in the annual All-Star Game between the two states in the summer of 1941.
Lester West went on to play collegiate basketball at Murray State Teachers College (now Murray State University) in the 1941-1942 season, earning a varsity letter under first year coach Rice Mountjoy. Suiting up for the Racers, West teamed-up with future NBA great Joe Fulks, who was also beginning his first year at Murray as well as another great freshman from Hardin, a former teammate of West on the Kentucky All-Star team, John Padgett. Despite a great regular season, finishing with an 18-2 record, Murray State did not fare as well in the two post-season tournaments they played in that year. The Racers lost to Western Kentucky by two, 46-44, in the first round of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) Tournament and then lost to East Central (OK) State in the first game of the NAIB Tournament in Kansas City by one, 46-45. The disappointing post-season did not discourage Murray State fans from looking forward to next season, even a few sports writers were encouraged with the players returning. The Messenger-Inquirer of Owensboro, KY had this to say about the 1942-43 Racer team in September 1942, “… Murray should have a great team next season with such stars as Captain Hyland Grimmer, Joe Fulks, John Padgett, Leonard “Red” Metcalfe, Herbert Hurley, Lester West and Wid Ellison returning. To inherit a ready-made machine like that is a dream few coaches realize…”
Unfortunately, Lester West would not be a member of the team that next season. World War II had been raging in Europe for three years and in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor sending the United States to war. Answering the call of duty, Lester West left Murray State and enlisted in the United States Army at Huntington, WV on November 10, 1942. After completing basic training, West was sent to receive additional training as a flight engineer and gunner in the Army Air Corps. After a long and arduous training regimen West was assigned to a crew who would be flying a B-24 Liberator into war. The crew of ten included the pilot, 2nd Lt. Edwin T. Szczypinski; co-pilot 2nd Lt. Robert F. Allgeier; navigator 2nd Lt. Bernard Wienckowski; bombardier 2nd Lt. Elmer Pahl; Lester West, recently promoted to Sergeant, was the flight engineer; his assistant engineer was Sergeant Ernest Szydlowski; the radio operator was Sergeant Carl Swift; the final three crew members were all assigned as gunners, Sergeants John Refy, Edward Westpfahl and Harvey Hitt.
In late January 1944, the flight crew, now known as Training Crew 18, were assigned to the 42nd Bomb Squadron in Hawaii for six weeks of additional training. In Hawaii the crew performed three weeks of flight training before finishing with three weeks of ground school training. Flight training included gunnery, formation flying, strange field landings, bombing, navigation and search missions. It was then on to ground school that included lectures on water landing procedures, radar communications, photo interpretation, ordnance, aircraft and sea craft recognition and identification as well as a course on the general geography of the Central Pacific. Even while the crew was being trained on the ground, they were expected to fly every day. Military officials hoped that this type of training would prepare the crew for the missions they were about to fly against the Japanese and expose them to any situations they may face, including flying over the wide expanse of the Pacific.
On March 29, 1944, with training complete, West and the rest of his B-24 crew were assigned to the 26th Bomb Squadron, 11th Bomb Group of the 7th Army Air Force operating out of Eniwetok Atoll. At that time, the 26th was regularly bombing Japanese held Truk Atoll. Considered the most formidable of all Japanese strongholds, Truk was Japan’s main naval base in the South Pacific. In February 1944, the United States had launched Operation Hailstone, a three day bombing campaign against the atoll that was a huge success, sinking twelve Japanese warships, thirty-two merchant ships and destroying 275 aircraft. Truk then earned the nickname “the biggest graveyard of ships in the world.”
However, Truk still remained a stronghold and American bombers were tasked with reducing the Japanese forces still remaining. The base was still sending aircraft to other parts of the Pacific against Allied forces and was defended by somewhere near forty anti-aircraft guns. Because of the amount of gunfire aircrews were receiving over Truk, it was determined that the best way to attack the Japanese troops there was to fly at night.
On April 16, 1944, just two weeks after being assigned to the 26th, Lester West and his crew found themselves on a night mission flying a B-24 nicknamed Heavy Date against the Japanese at Truk. The Heavy Date went through the mission undamaged and bombardier Elmer Pahl was able to drop his bombs on target, even after “a 6,000 foot dive to avoid enemy searchlights and night fighters.” However, it was on the flight back to Eniwetok that the crew realized they did not have enough fuel to return to base. At 8:19pm local time, the Eniwetok radio station picked up the first SOS call from radio operator Carl Swift, “SOS SOS SOS Ditching Flying Course 73…” The radio transmission was acknowledged and radio operators immediately tried to get a fix on the aircraft’s position. After being asked how much more time the plane could remain in the air, Swift replied with “Not over an hour at most.” The problem with lack of fuel was communicated and the aircraft climbed to 10,000 feet. The bombardier Elmer Pahl later recalled the mood of the men on the plane, “We knew we did not have enough gasoline to make it and would have to come down in enemy territory, probably on the water. Everyone took it calmly and went about the business of throwing out everything that would lighten the plane… It made me feel proud to be with them, the way they took it. I don’t think there was a man aboard who wasn’t sure that he would come through all right and be rescued. Some of them stuffed themselves with K-rations while waiting but I was too scared to eat.”
At 9:36pm, the radio operator on Eniwetok recorded in his log that the Heavy Date “sent scrambled, nervous [radio calls], unable to make sense out of transmission.” It had been an hour and seventeen minutes since the first SOS had been sent and fuel was now critically low on the aircraft. In the next few minutes the crew watched as one engine ran out of fuel and stopped running. The bombardier Pahl recalled, “The pilot [Edwin T. Szczypinski] let us know that we were going down. He kept calling off the altitude as we got closer and closer to the water…” At 9:48pm the Heavy Date made a crash landing “in Japanese-controlled waters off [the island of] Ponape [Pohnpei].”
Because of the violence of the crash, the next few moments were a blur for members of the crew. Edwin Pahl remembered that, “I was in the tail and all I remember is the spray coming in the window. Then I was in the water swimming my head off.” Gunner Harvey Hitt, knocked unconscious for a few moments when the plane hit the water, was also in the tail of the plane but came to in the bomb bay before swimming to a nearby life raft. The pilot, 2nd Lt. Edwin T. Szczypinski, was severely injured in the crash, suffering severe cuts on both legs as well as a compound fracture of his left leg. He only remembered being able to release his safety belt and use his arms to swim away from the plane, finding a raft. Assistant flight engineer Ernest Szydlowski, despite a broken thigh bone, managed to swim clear of the sinking plane and reach the life raft that held Pahl and Hitt. Before long it became clear, these four men were the only members of the crew of the Heavy Date to survive.
A few weeks later, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph West, who had moved from Martin County to Waverly, Ohio, were informed of the death of their son. It wasn’t long before news of his death spread around the state of Kentucky. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported the following on July 13, 1944, “Lester West, Murray State College basketball star who was in the Army Air Corps, has been reported killed in the South Pacific. West, who captained Inez to a state championship in 1941 and was unanimous choice for the all-state team, was considered one of the best passers ever to enroll at Murray and had a brilliant cage future until he left school in the fall of 1942. He was reported to have been killed in a crash when the plane made a water landing. Efforts to save the crew were only partially successful, four members of the staff being picked up…” Nearly a month later, on August 7, 1944, the College News of Murray, KY informed their readers, “Lester West was killed in action on April 16 near Truk Island. He was an engineer gunner on a bomber. His commanding officer wrote his parents as follows: ‘The crash occurred while returning from a bombing mission against the enemy base. Just prior to making the water landing, radio contact with the plane was maintained and the approximate location of the crash was received. Our planes, together with Navy sea planes were dispatched immediately to that area. At first nothing could be found but after a continued search four survivors were rescued after drifting in life rafts for two days. The survivors confirmed the fact that your son, along with other members of the crew, had been killed in the crash.’ Before coming to Murray State in 1941, West had played four years on the Inez High School team where he was on the all-state team for two years. Inez won the championship in 1941 and West was captain of the all-state team. He was awarded a letter in 1942 as a member of Murray’s basketball squad.”
The bodies of Lester West and the other five crewmembers of the Heavy Date lost on April 16, 1944 were never recovered. The names of these men are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila-American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila, Philippines.